Communication and decision making about life-sustaining treatment: examining the experiences of resident physicians and seriously-ill hospitalized patients

J Gen Intern Med. 2008 Nov;23(11):1877-82. doi: 10.1007/s11606-008-0779-6. Epub 2008 Sep 18.


Background: Despite evidence-based recommendations for communication and decision making about life-sustaining treatment, resident physicians' actual practice may vary. Few prior studies have examined these conversations qualitatively to uncover why ineffective communication styles may persist.

Objective: To explore how discussions about life-sustaining treatment occur and examine the factors that influence physicians' communicative practices in hopes of providing novel insight into how these processes can be improved. PARTICIPANTS AND APPROACH: We conducted and recorded 56 qualitative semi-structured interviews with participants from 28 matched dyads of a resident physician and a hospitalized patient or their surrogate decision maker with whom cardiopulmonary resuscitation was discussed. Transcripts were analyzed and coded using the constant comparative method to develop themes.

Main results: Resident physicians introduced decisions about resuscitation in a scripted, depersonalized and procedure-focused manner. Decision makers exhibited a poor understanding of the decision they were being asked to make and resident physicians often disagreed with the decision. Residents did not advocate for a particular course of action; however, the discussions of resuscitation were framed in ways that may have implicitly influenced decision making.

Conclusions: Residents' communication practices may stem from their attempt to balance an informed choice model of decision making with their interest in providing appropriate care for the patient. Physicians' beliefs about mandatory autonomy may be an impediment to improving communication about patients' choices for life-sustaining treatment. Redefining the role of the physician will be necessary if a shared decision making model is to be adopted.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study

MeSH terms

  • Advance Care Planning*
  • Aged
  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation / psychology*
  • Decision Making
  • Family*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency*
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Life Support Care / psychology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations*